I’m A Person of Color — And I’m A Racist.
(A personal examination of why “Colorblindness” is a myth)
“We’re going to go to Lexington Market for lunch,” my mother informed me.
Eleven year old me was not happy about this move. My father (you’ll hear more about him later) had come along for this trip to watch us while mom worked, which felt sad and forced, because they were divorcing. It was Saturday, I had been here for three days, and so far I hated this city. I hated Canton. I hated the overpriced boutiques, and I hated the yuppies, and I hated feeling guilty and anxious because we had been eating out all week even though when we were at home our private chef went by the name of “Michelina,” and mostly we subsisted on her Swedish meatballs.
“Lexington Market” sounded fine enough, and mom told me there were “Dozens of different food vendors to choose from and everything is fantastic.” She described it as “authentic Baltimore.” So, as we piled into the rental vehicle, I imagined this market, and I imagined that it would be nice. It couldn’t be as horrendous as the “Sip and Bite” diner she had forced me to go to.
I watched out the window as we drove away from Tindeco Wharf, through the city. I had never seen so many abandoned houses — or “rowhomes” as the locals called them. The contrast between where we were staying was stark, and I started to feel sad for the place where I was damned to live out my middle school existence.
She parked the rental car. “We’re here!”
My surroundings looked like they were a cross between war torn Africa and music videos on the channel I wasn’t allowed to watch. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I felt scared. The people behaved like apes. The women had broods of unattended children who were screaming, crying, and yelling profanities. “This is why they call black people monkeys,” I thought to myself. “These people are disgusting.”
We stepped inside and the aroma that hit me was overpowering. It was the scent of fry grease, urine, and a sweet smoky smell that I didn’t yet recognize. These apes were aggressively trying to sell me things I didn’t need — magazines, socks, cheap headphones, earrings that were most definitely not a quality metal. They were yelling at each other and cackling. Had nobody taught them how to behave in public? It was like I had stepped into some gross jungle. The way some of the men looked at me, men old enough to be my father, I felt like a gazelle about to be pounced on. They were Animals. They were Subhuman. I saw a transaction. Money and a small bag filled with something rocky.
Bless my mother’s heart, but she had dragged me to what was basically still an open air drug market. I really tried to enjoy the food I got from one of the stalls. The combination of too much corn syrup in the sauce and the melting styrofoam box and the fear of being shot up like the opening scene of an episode of CSI made me lose my appetite.
“This is why people call black people niggers, and maybe they’re right. This is why stereotypes exist.”
I wanted to go back to Wisconsin. Plot Twist: We didn’t.
Funny story, my mom’s white. My dad’s black. Not full on black, mixed race black, but dark enough to just be black to other people. I’m a caramel brown color, with dark brown eyes, and curly ringlets, and I inherited some of my mother’s Irish freckles. When I was in kindergarten, a TA asked me why I didn’t color my skin the same color as my dad’s when I drew pictures of my family. They just didn’t have the right color crayon, and my skin was closer to the manila paper I was drawing on, but she made me color it darker anyways. In second grade, I was denied entry to a recess club because my hair was “too dark,” which led to an assembly that in retrospect was almost funny because that bitch Greta sure as hell didn’t have the ambition to actually become the next Hitler. When I was in middle school, a lot of kids just assumed what I “was” and called me a Mexican (and creative variations thereof), but it’s also the age people started doing the whole played out shenanigans of “You’re so pretty… what are you?”
I wasn’t just a black girl. I was exotic. I was different. I was beautiful. I was a new breed, but mostly, I wasn’t just black.
I received compliments on how “well spoken” and “knowledgeable” I was. People were “pleasantly surprised” by me. So I didn’t have to actively do much to distance myself from my blackness. My distance was assumed by others because of my own presentation and behavior. Most of my friends were white. I laughed at their racist jokes. I didn’t speak up when they called someone a “nigger,” or when they pointed out that there was a “big scary black guy” walking a block behind us when we left a concert. When I was sixteen, I hooked up with a boy with a confederate flag belt buckle. He said he really liked me but if he took me home his “daddy would make an ornament out of you.” I thought it meant I was pretty, like a star on top of the Christmas tree. It took me telling that story to friends a few years later for them to explain what it actually meant, and I felt sick.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that my blackness slapped me in the face. It happened when I brought my white boyfriend to the theatre to see a show, and an older woman made a noise and sneered at us as we walked past. It happened when a well meaning but painfully naive friend asked “So your mom will be happy if you marry your boyfriend, but your dad would rather you marry a black guy, right?” It happened when I filled out forms and I always checked the “other” box because you couldn’t check more than one. It happened when I applied for jobs and people would ask me “so did you graduate from high school” and then “how many kids do you have?” If I was babysitting a friend’s kid, older men would ask me “how many more do you have” and assume that I didn’t have a partner. It happened when my mom’s boyfriend called her a “nigger loving, money grubbing slut” when she broke up with him. There were a few times people shouted “nigger” at me from the safety of their moving cars. I was okay with being told “You’re not really black. You’re an oreo.” There were places I knew I couldn’t go because the concentration of Klan members in the community made it unsafe. Still, I’d drunkenly say things to my friends like “I don’t even like watermelon” and “Why don’t we just bomb Africa like seriously what have they done for the world lately?”
My best friend is from Belarus. She told me a story about the first time she encountered an African person was when she was maybe 7 years old, riding on a train in Minsk. She pointed and innocently (and knowing her, probably very loudly) proceeded to ask “WHY IS THAT MAN GREEN?” Her babushka quickly quipped “If you do not behave you will turn ‘green’ too.”
I laughed because that is seriously the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. Someone was black because they misbehaved and that was their punishment?? But now when I think about it, it makes me sad. Nobody ever said it to me straight like that, but I had these internalized ideas that distancing myself from “misbehavior,” I would somehow cease to be black. If I fully assimilated into white (mainstream) culture, if I had a close circle of white friends, if I flat ironed my hair, and I made the same jokes, people wouldn’t hit me with the same prejudice. I accepted that in doing so, I was personally perpetuating the same sort of prejudice. And damn, let me tell you, was that hard and painful. It hurts to admit how wrong you are sometimes.
I am the definition of someone who, according to my upbringing and my pedigree, should be the perfect specimen to prove that “colorblindness” is totes a thing. It’s not. It’s a lie. It’s a myth. Colorblindness is impossible, because prejudice is absolutely rampant in our society and it continues to be absorbed by everyone. You can’t say you’re colorblind until your stories about going out last Friday don’t include you mentioning the “big scary black guy” who turned out to miraculously(!!) be a nice dude. You can’t say you’re colorblind until you stop labeling a woman “ratchet” because she has multicolored twists while simultaneously cooing over whatever hairstyle Kylie Jenner has glued onto her head this week on your insta. Actually, just stop saying you’re colorblind. Period. (And please don’t ask me to be a little more tone deaf when I tell you that saying you “don’t see color,” or “Everyone is equal” means you just see everyone as equal to white.)
I thought that because I was mixed, I was immune to absorbing these preconceptions. But I absorbed them just like you, dear white reader. The only difference is that my prejudices helped to dictate my own perception of myself in a way that was personally detrimental — and I actually had no choice but to deeply examine it.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I could name one black person who I considered a good friend. One. I still feel like I can’t fully relate to other black people, because I’ve spent so much of my life being told by white people (and telling myself) that I was different. And there’s definitely a sense of shame in that, because it means that I’m admitting that yes, although I was lucky enough to be raised and surrounded by people who consider themselves not racist, I internalized enough dislike and prejudice towards black people that it made me withdrawn and avoidant towards people who are just like me. The more “woke” and self aware I become, the more some of the white people I considered my friends distance themselves from me. The more I educate myself, embrace my not-whiteness and speak about it, the more I am called “angry.” I think it’s okay to be angry that we’re taught that our personal behavior will make us impervious to racism from white people. I think it’s okay to be angry that I was expected to laugh when my boyfriend said he “didn’t need a pet monkey because he had me.” I think it’s okay to be angry that when I reject a white dude on OkCupid, there’s a real chance he’ll feel the need to say something sly like “your weave looks like shit anyways” or “guess I can’t be your babydaddy huh?” (joke’s on u bby this my real hair and I‘ve never given birth.)
But it’s okay. I’m learning. And being labeled as “angry” is so much better than being absolutely dismissive.